What Is Democracy?
I recently heard a member of the Idaho Nez Perce/Nimiipuu say that if you have the sense of having lost something, you should gaze in that direction and it will come toward you. I’ve been trying to gaze in the direction of democracy.
People mean a million different things by democracy, but it seems there are two main categories. To most people of the contemporary left — including myself and others who advocate cultural democracy — the underlying democratic impulse is egalitarian. Democracy is when everyone has a voice, not just a vote. Impediments to full participation must be removed. Special action must be taken to ensure full access and representation for those who have previously been excluded or unfairly challenged by discriminatory laws, policies, and practices. Strengthening democracy depends on decentralization, with power exercised at the most local levels, not just in distant capitols.
The vision of democracy we cherish is imperiled by many things: disinformation campaigns such as the one that convinced many people the 2020 election was stolen from #IMPOTUS; vast sums of money spent on advertising in a system far too dependent on money as a means to democracy; relics such as the Electoral College and the filibuster that prevent the exercise of direct democracy. Grassroots organizing in the 2020 election gave me hope for triumphing over these obstacles. If people are willing to work hard, to be greatly inconvenienced and hugely persistent in excercising their rights to vote, they can prevail.
But more important than election day to the vision of real democracy is what happens on the other 364 days of the year, and that is what I fear losing. In a real democracy, political education would be a universal aim, not an afterthought. There’s a lingering idea of political education that means lectures for the masses, but that is not what I mean. The most powerful political education I’ve encountered is happening via cultural organizing, where people cocreate in many artforms, experiencing real democracy in small groups, learning ideas and approaches that can scale up to truly democratic cities, states, and nations.
I am all for learning about political ideas through books and films, talks and podcasts. But the most meaningful political education must be embodied. It offers opportunities to experience key issues directly, in one’s own mind, body, and spirit. On the scale of a project or a community organization, people rehearse the civic virtues that create real participation and equity. They take part in crafting a vision of a future they want to inhabit. They cast both critical and hopeful eyes on the realities around them, and see themselves as having something meaningful to contribute to understanding and right action.
In a full democracy, open dialogues about values, policies, and practices form a foundation — a humus or matrix — that supports the strength of fair and fully democratic elections. But we aren’t having those dialogues. Rather we are facing truths hard to integrate into genuine dialogue. What do you talk about when a large number of people believe insane things (child abuse rings in pizza parlor basements!)? When their daily fare scapegoats community members who differ from themselves in terms of race, religion, immigration status, and more? When they send their hard-earned money to a candidate who purports to be a billionaire yet uses it to fund his private businesses?
That’s my democratic dilemma. I’m gazing toward real democracy informed by egalitarian values.
But to many people on the right, democracy means nothing more than elections. The clearest statement of this came from the economist Joseph Schumpeter, who offered a minimalist definition of democracy as a contest between elites to win elections by persuading uninformed voters to buy what the winning side is selling. Eighty or more years before the political dominance of social media, Schumpeter saw advertising as the key method of obtaining that legitimation.
(If you’re interested in learning more about him, I recommend the British scholar David Runciman’s podcast “History of Ideas,” which recently included an episode on Schumpeter and his influence.)
This reductive definition of democracy is not only embraced by the right, but they have made winning at all costs part of the definition. Republicans are prepared to take any and all steps to reduce voting by those likely to oppose their policies, as Senator Ted Cruz said in a recent call with right-wing state legislators:
If Democrats achieve their goal of easier voter access with HR 1, “they will win and maintain control of the House of Representatives and the Senate and of the state legislatures for the next century.” Cruz is exaggerating, but his claims is premised on fact: Republicans do worse when voting access expands, and better when they can suppress it. That’s why GOP lawmakers have proposed, according to the Brennan Center, 250 voter-restriction bills in 43 states since Trump’s defeat. Is there any room for compromise with Democrats, someone asked Cruz on the ALEC call. “No,” he said.
The state of Georgia, whose Republican leaders are in a permanent panic over the success of Stacy Abrams’ and others voter mobilization efforts in recent elections, is leading the pack in adopting appalling voting restrictions, including a provision making it a crime to give food or water to people standing on line to vote.
It’s hard to predict how the new restrictions will affect electoral outcomes. They will be challenged in the courts, but many people believe the Supreme Court packed by #IMPOTUS will back Georgia and other states. It’s possible they will be superseded by federal voting rights laws that restore protections Republican-led states are trying to eliminate. They may indeed be a spur to grassroots activism, with people fighting back against attempts to disenfranchise them, as in the last election.
If they stand, they will be highly discouraging to people who lack access to institutions that others take for granted, eliminating drop boxes and demanding identification requirements that may be difficult to meet for those who live in a remote Indigenous community, for instance. They will require people to take long hours off from work or other responsibilities to stand on line, rather than using mail-in ballots or drop boxes. They will amplify the relentless work Republicans have already done over years to gerrymander districts, shifting boundaries to ensure victory where setting reasonable electoral boundaries would have meant defeat.
Real electoral democracy would make an enormous difference in this country, and many people are working very hard to bring it about. Yet it is a necessary — but not sufficient — condition to guarantee social, economic, and cultural democracy. Advocates of pluralism, participation, equity, and reciprocity like myself understand that electoral outcomes must be respected. But damaging outcomes must also be opposed through action designed to educate people about their consequences and to promote greater fairness and possibility.
In the Schumpeter chapter of his podcast, David Runciman asks an important question. If the outcome of an election goes against your values and you believe in democracy, do you just shrug and say, “Oh well, the people have spoken?” Few of us did that in 2016 and I can’t imagine doing it in future if events take such a turn.
If our definition of democracy doesn’t include the work we do on the other 364 days — turning and feeding and watering the humus of inquiry and dialogue that is democracy’s matrix — Schumpeter’s definition comes true: democracy is just a contest of elites. We are very close to this now. We can avoid succumbing altogether not by responding to the endless pitches for money our elected officials generate in this cash-driven system (go ahead, by all means, just don’t mistake it for practicing democracy), not by putting all our eggs in the electoral basket, but by supporting and taking part in the human scale creative and community work that is the political education we need.
“I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” Otis Redding.